• A set of statements or principles devised to explain a group of facts or phenomena. A belief or principle that guides action or assists comprehension or judgment.1
Theorizing sheds light on the nature of something through individual or collective inquiry. Regarding our interest in the subject of furniture design, the questions asked are broad and encompassing. What is furniture design? What is its place in the world? Who are furniture designers? How is furniture design done, and for whom is it undertaken? What are the principles of furniture design, and why are they important to know?
The Latin word theria and the Greek word theoroi mean "to see," "seeing the sights," or "seeing within" and are the origins of the English word theory.2 These origins point to the importance of looking within oneself as well as looking outward to the world. Furniture designers rely upon intuitive judgment (looking inward), utilize materials and processes (looking under), draw upon prior experience (looking backward), and observe how people do things (looking outward) when seeking inspiration for their own work (Figure 5.1).
Inquiry directs the discussions of furniture design toward functional (commodity), technical (firmness), and aesthetic matters (delight). In doing so, theory reveals knowledge that establishes academic parameters for good design. Knowledge and ethos in design change over time, and so does theory. When new evidence about an area or subject emerges, theory will adjust accordingly. Our understanding of comfort, fabrication technology, and aesthetics is different today than it was 30 years ago, and likely will continue to evolve.
Inquiry sustains a body of work—all types of work. What ideas contribute to furniture design? Can one design be considered better than another? Aside from aspects of comfort and workmanship, what makes a good chair good? We have a host of "bestsellers" in many different typologies, designed and marketed according to theories of ergonomics, human factors, and anthropometrics. Which designs are the best? Aside from considerations of price and comfort, what qualities make them the best? Expanding upon the relationships between furniture and space, how might placement, scale, and orientation draw furniture into an architectural thesis?
Most furniture designs are conceived to make life better— easier, more efficient, and more comfortable. Bed designs are intended to give people a better night’s sleep. Shelving and storage units are designed to organize and store items. Chairs are designed to support and enable a range of activities and body postures. Although we are grateful for all the positive attributes that furniture designs have given us and for the efficiencies and standards of living obtained through their use, it is important to consider both the positive and the negative effects that furniture has on our daily lives. It is important to be aware of the unintended consequences that furniture may have on our bodies and the influence it can have on the way we live.
Ergonomic seating is a furniture genre that is a case in point. Ergonomic task chairs enable people to sit and work in front of a computer display terminal longer—for hours on end, resulting in a more sedentary lifestyle. Sitting devices—in fact, human body supports in general—must be designed in ways that minimize the negatively unintended consequences that furniture can have on the user. Digital design and digital fabrication produces an efficiency in mass production and mass customization of furniture, but at the same time it directly affects the propensity of craftsmanship and the reliance on workmanship of certainty in fabrication, raising a question regarding the value or desire for the mark of the maker, the trepidation of risk and failure, and the role of craft in design. As designers, it is important to keep aware that furniture can serve the individual user, the community, the environment as well as the social, cultural, economic, and political landscapes throughout the world.
During the past 300 years, as technology has advanced and societal concerns have evolved into more democratic ideals, furniture makers and furniture designers have begun to acknowledge distinct cultural shifts within disciplinary and professional arenas. In the past 50 years, industrial designers, interior designers, architects, and fine artists have contributed to social change through the design and fabrication of furniture. Designers have sought a better understanding of material science, ergonomics, comfort, production, and the business of marketing, branding, and distribution. Today, theory engages aspects of industrialization and mass production; green design; health, safety, and welfare concerns; universal design; transgenerational design; and social use. The culture of design continues to reach out to a broader market and is fueled, in part, by designers working on designs that are more or less within economic reach.
Theory is the conglomeration of many voices. Thomas Chippendale, Gustav Stickley, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, Charles and Ray Eames, David Pye, Galen Cranz, Peter Opsvik,
Bill Stumpf, and Sam Maloof are a few of the many designers who have contributed ideas about composition, technique, comfort, and social utility through their efforts in designing, and fabricating furniture. The lessons and ideas drawn from others are important to assimilate because they can help inspire and formulate personal and collective views about furniture and design.
Ludwig Mies van der Rohe once said, "A chair is a very difficult object. A skyscraper is almost easier."3 Consider the following three explanations:
1. A chair is an extension of the user, and no two users are exactly alike. No two users sit, squat, or move about in the same manner, or for the same length of time.
2. A chair is used for many different purposes (e. g., to rest, work, write, type, read, talk, etc.). Each of these activities could result in a specific chair, yet often chairs are intended to be multifunctional.
3. Sitting is inherently a challenge to ones well-
being. Research indicates that standing is healthier than sitting. The body needs to move about, frequently change positions, and adjust itself constantly.
Sitting is considered by many to be a static activity, but in fact, the human body needs to move and stretch continually (Figure 5.2). The challenge in designing a chair extends beyond physical parameters of static posture. Theories abound regarding the dynamics of body movement. Ideas about ergonomics have evolved significantly, and knowledge in the area of anthropometrics has developed as well. It is important to study ergonomic theories, and it is generally useful to produce working prototypes and take the opportunity to experience and directly evaluate design ideas.